Monday, June 8, 2009
Thelonius Sphere Monk
I lived in New York City for the first time in Winter 1958 when on an Antioch College coop job as a research librarian at Popular Science Magazine. While my job was only of middling interest, living in the city was mind-blowing for a late adolescent from a little town in Michigan’s upper peninsula. One of my friends in the metro area was Steve Schwerner, a freshman year hallmate and the jazz DJ for the college radio station. Soon after I moved to NYC, Steve organized a weekend expedition of college friends to the Five Spot Café to hear the Thelonius Monk Quartet. I’d never heard of Monk, but Steve guaranteed we would find it something special.
The Five Spot was located on Bowery between 3rd and 4th Streets, just off Cooper Square and a couple of blocks north of the city’s infamous skid row. We walked over from Greenwich Village on Fourth St. through a dark and desolate section, populated by men sleeping in doorways or wandering the cold winter streets -- an unnerving place after dark. The Five Spot itself struck one as a neighborhood dive – even a dump. It was small and dark, with tables crowded together, and a small bar against the south wall. There was no cover charge -- a boon for us students on stringent budgets -- and the beer, which we nursed through a full set, was cheap.
Monk’s quartet consisted of John Coltrane on tenor sax, Wilbur Ware on bass, Shadow Wilson on drums, and Monk himself on piano. Steve filled us in that Monk was regarded, along with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, as one of the originators of bebop in the 1940’s and a major shaper of modern jazz. His return to the Five Spot in summer 1957 had been a major event in the city’s jazz scene, since he had been arrested on marijuana possession charges in 1951 and barred from performing in NYC clubs since that time.
I’m sure you’ve heard Monk’s music, since it has long been a dominant force in American jazz. I found it absolutely amazing and wonderful. Monk is famous for his innovativeness, using the piano keyboard almost as a percussive instrument, employing discordant sequences of notes which jar one’s sensibilities, and mixing in unexpected pauses. The piano and the tenor sax weave complex harmonies that are beyond description. Monk always appeared to be totally immersed in his music. When other musicians did their solos, he would rise from the piano bench and do a shuffling dance on the stage, turning in a circle. If the crowd got too noisy, Monk signaled his players to stop, then told the audience that this wasn’t a party or social outing but like a concert to which people should be paying close attention. On one occasion, I was totally absorbed in the music, eyes closed, swaying in my seat, tapping with my knuckles on the table. When I opened my eyes, there was Thelonius Monk, seated a couple of yards away, grinning at this young white kid so wrapped up in his music. Remembering that moment still brings a smile to my face.
We went to the Five Spot regularly over the next two years. Johnny Griffin replaced John Coltrane as the saxophonist in the quartet, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik replaced Wilbur Ware on bass. Late in 1958, Katja began a coop job at the Council for Student Travel in NYC, and she and I began going to the Five Spot regularly. Her younger sister, 14-year-old Ami, came in to visit from Philadelphia that winter, and we took Ami there to hear Monk and imbibe scotch and soda. When Monk was not in residence, we saw a number of other jazz greats at the Five Spot: Charlie Mingus, Mal Waldron, Ornette Coleman, Pepper Adams.
According to jazz historians, Monk’s last studio recordings were done in November 1971 at the end of a worldwide tour with Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Sonny Stitt, and others. Monk’s health declined, and he spent his last six years as a guest in the New Jersey home of his long-time friend and patron, Baronness Nica de Koenigswater. Though he had a piano in his room, he didn’t play a note after 1976. He died of a stroke on Feb. 17, 1982. Monk was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.
Monk enriched my life, as he did literally millions of others. I spent a lot of time listening to his music, subscribed to Downbeat magazine, and started going to a variety of jazz clubs in the city – the Village Vanguard, the White Horse Tavern, Birdland. Each Saturday morning I took the subway up to 125th St. in Harlem where the city’s best record store was located, and I bought one album each week, the maximum that my budget could afford. I started with all of Monk’s records, then expanded to Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Art Blakey, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Bud Powell, and others to numerous to mention. I not only love Monk’s music, but he represented, then and now, genius, nonconformity, and the heights of creativity. When I try to think of famous people who have been important models in my own life experience, Monk is near at the top of the list. If you do a YouTube search on “Thelonius Monk”, you’ll get videos of many of his great classics: Round Midnight; Epistrophy; Straight, No Chaser; Blue Monk; Ruby My Dear, etc. I've posted a few of these in the column at the right. Give a listen.